Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

Theatre’s final taboo: fun

The stage has become a pleasure-free zone in which snarling dramatists fight over their pet political causes

(iStock)

How will the theatre look after lockdown? A clue emerges in a statement made by Guy Jones, the literary associate of the Orange Tree in Richmond. ‘The victims of this year are many. Homelessness is on the rise, loneliness is deadly, the monster of racism lurks in every-day interactions… and many of the inequalities we live with are written into the systems in which we are asked to participate.’

‘The victims’. That’s his starting point. It might seem odd that a theatre should prioritise the injured and the aggrieved, as if the stage were a tribunal or a public court where justice is dispensed. But that’s how theatres see themselves. Lockdown and the rise of BLM in 2020 have created a host of new causes to be fought over by snarling dramatists. Meanwhile, words like ‘showbiz’, ‘entertainment’ and ‘fun’ are almost taboo. The boss of the Old Vic, Matthew Warchus, seems to shudder at the thought of giving an audience a good time. ‘Intelligent entertainment is a transformative necessity, not a luxury,’ he says sternly on the theatre’s website. ‘Fiction can change individuals and societies for the better.’ Where’s the evidence for this? Russia in 1900 had, arguably, the greatest fictional back-catalogue in the world but that didn’t change its society ‘for the better’ during the 20th century.

Warchus is, perhaps, the type of activist who falls for his own half-truths. Large parts of our theatrical culture have been captured by pamphleteers and political dabblers who hate pleasure and want to foment a revolution. Log on to the National Theatre and you’ll find a website that looks like a news channel. ‘National Theatre declares climate emergency,’ it says. Where did it acquire that level of expertise, and why does it consider itself an authority on science? No one else does. The site also features a denunciation by the boss, Rufus Norris, of sexual bullying.

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